STICK WITH THE STATS OR TWIST THE TACTICS: THE VAGARIES OF INTERNATIONAL TOURNAMENT FOOTBALL  

 

** This was penned as a preview to the round of 16 matches by @nanu759

“Stats are misleading.”

Honestly they are; and even more so during tournament football.

I’m not a huge fan of stats-based reports because they tend to be ambiguous. The best way to view a game is to watch it and no amount of statistics can give you an honest picture of what happens in a game. Football games by their nature are played by human beings (we don’t know about Messi) and human beings have emotions.

If you trawl through Stats Zone after a game you didn’t see, to view patterns you might have missed, you have a one in two chance of being misled by assuming your team had a great day in the crossing stakes. Only if you had actually seen the game might you have noticed that the opposing fullback let crosses come in from deep rather than deal with a pacy winger who could get to the byline.

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Apps such as statszone have made it easier to forget what you witnessed [Stats Zone]

Little things such as an early hack that went unpunished by the ref might prevent a player from going down a channel that could have led to an opening and such quirks punctuate many a football match.

Having made note of this, we can now delve into the world of international tournament football and the dreaded word: TACTICS!

It’s a known that competition in tournament level and especially international football is vastly different from weekly club games. The simple reason is that over a shorter period of time and with more intense mental pressure, players tend to react differently. Some players are turned on by the opportunity while others wilt. It’s not uncommon to see a player in razor sharp league form for his club arrive at major international tournament and look bereft of ideas, motivation and luck. Players such as Zidane lived for the big stage and were most successful in many high pressure games. Others are famed for not being able to handle it.

This is where the issue of tactics comes in. A good/successful coach in international competition has great ones in his arsenal and must utilize them wisely for his team to be successful whilst hoping that his opponent neither has one that matches his nor gets the benefit of luck. If two teams adopt similar tactical styles from their coaches, the chances of a draw are more likely. For this reason, It’s no surprise that 4 of the last 5 European cup finals between teams from the same national federation have gone to extra time (Bayern x Dortmund that didn’t was settled in the 90th minute) and three of the four that did go to extra time went to penalties

Rui Costa of AC Milan challenges Edgar Davids of Juventus

(Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Knowing me knowing you! ’03 UCL final is a prime example of a clash of analogous tactics [Goal]

I don’t like using examples (at the risk of using what might be an exception to justify my arguments) but here’s another one… attempt.

Belgium versus Italy on paper looks like a difficult but winnable game for the red devils but the azzurri had one tactical advantage over the Belgians before the game even began; the expectation was heavily on the minds of the Belgians. Combined with the act that there was a lot more cohesion in the Italian unit and a dogmatic message/presence for their coach Antonio Conte, it was rather surprising how little was expected of the Italians. Without playing exceptionally and without any marquee player to lump with responsibilities, the Italians waltzed through much of the game with consummate ease. Much is made of the abilities of players such as Pirlo and Verratti who were missing in the team but a simple direct over the top pass from Leo Bonucci was all it took to destroy the Belgian façade. This breakdown might sound overly simplistic but in truth there was really nothing else to Italy’s game. Players such as Candreva, Parolo and Giacherrinini stretched the game and forced Belgium to spend the entire game trying to recover the ball.

Mental fatigue sets in a lot quicker and although the stats showed that Belgium were getting closer to the Italian goal with big chances at the end, the tactical battle was already lost and the scoreline could have been worse with the Italian breakaway chances being as clear as they were. Wilmots also played into Italian hands by taking off Nainggolan (a player who offered something different to what the Italians were effectively dealing with by cutting off Lukaku and preventing hazard and De bruyne from combining) to bring on Carrasco instead of taking of Fellaini. Hindsight is 20/20 as they say but the idea of leaving Fellaini on paid no dividends as despite his height, he was unable to trouble Italy’s BBC – physicality is their forte. Surely an alternate approach was needed. At the end of the day, the Belgian forward line looked like a unit that had never trained together before. In their final two games, Fellaini was decidedly DROPPED and Belgium subsequently won both.

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Experience x Wit divided by Expectation x Fatigue = Italy Win. [Reuters]

Another issue in International tournaments is the stick or twist conundrum that all coaches face. It doesn’t matter what stage you find yourself in, it’s bound to come up. For some, changes are enforced due to injury or some other reason such as ill-discipline.  At other times, it’s technical factors such as your opponent identifying the dope in your side (before you do) that forces you to make a shift.  A typical example is your team’s fullback being targeted by two rapid wide players and facing an overload.

Deschamps faced it during France’s two games already at the tournament, and if anything he has learned that neither Coman and/or Martial provide a sufficient Plan B and that Les Bleues best hopes currently rest on the ambition of their prime forwards. The team went plan A to plan B in the first game and by full time in the second game had gone from B to A all over again! Pogba’s demotion was part disciplinary and not that he played that poorly or withered in the first game but the stats (sigh) didn’t make for good reading and if you ask me, I’d say that his reputation is overplayed slightly due to his physique and highlight-ability. Deschamps acknowledged those facts and humbled him but Martial’s terrible game and Coman’s inability to combine with Sagna ruined that experiment.

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Is the weight of legacy definition affecting his decisiveness? [France-24]

Evra and Matuidi were accused of patronizing each other too much as they regularly do in most French games and they subsequently toned it down vs Albania but it didn’t help the team going forward.

In Group B, the German and the Polish coaches faced the same issue when both their teams lined up. Germany were very open in defence and had to rely on super-heroics of Boateng and Manuel Neuer to bail them out while Poland were surprisingly profligate. Much of that owed to Northern Ireland marking the hell out of Lewandowski and leaving his less able but highly inventive partner Milik with most of the chances. Germany decided to play to their strengths and kept the Poles occupied in their territory (That last line was not a WWII pun). The game finished goalless. Gotze came up short again and Mario Gomez started and scored in the final game. Germany have been creating chances for fun but their lack of finishing is truly worrying.

The final group games were mainly bereft of major tactical changes in terms of style.  What we did see was personnel coming in either as part of rotation (see Italy and their 8 changes) and as acts of desperation. As evidenced by Hungary x Portugal, once multiple factors such as uncertainties in other simultaneous games are put in, you’re in for a crazy open game. Cristiano Ronaldo thrives on games such as these and it was no surprise to see him stand out with two exceptionally well taken goals and a peach of an assist for Nani. Joao Mario in this form is undroppable while Andre Gomes is a candidate for the bench in their upcoming game vs Croatia (Quaresma’s lack of fitness could mean he plays though) they might need a bit more control. Joao Moutinho was equally poor and has not performed the role of linking midfield. If they are both dropped, Danilo will definitely come on to pair with William Carvalho and a slight possibility of Renato Sanches off the bench. His ‘lack’ of discipline could help if Portugal decide to sit back as he can break away and combine with any of the front three.

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Three is a crowd? Magic combo for the men in Teal [Reuters]

In Group D, Spain on their part stuck to the same line-up that plucked away at the Czech Republic and put in a stellar performance against Turkey. Croatia made 5 changes in what was widely assumed to be a rotational side. The stats favored Croatia in the end but they were somewhat skewed by the fact that Spain missed a penalty at a point in the second half when they were in the ascendancy and that Croatia’s winner came from a pass after an Aduriz shot. One seemingly tactical error that can be pointed at Del Bosque was actually a technical one; bringing on Bruno Soriano for Nolito. It actually had the opposite effect and instead of shoring up Spain’s midfield as a defensive sub, it encouraged the Spanish defenders to push up, leaving the brunt of defensive work to Busquets and Bruno alone. Were Spain complacent? Probably. Expect a very tight game on Monday at the Stade de France vs Italy.

In summary, over a shorter period for a tournament as opposed to a 10-month league campaign, the stats tend to be somewhat distorted by a whole host of events. Technical decisions based on tactical readings of the player’s themselves are the best bet as games get tighter and the likelihood of conservatism takes over. Chances are often at a premium in deeply tactical games and that’s why the moments that define them tend to be very iconic.

These attitudes give major international tournaments their unique appeal and make them an enduring watch

Yet again…

 

Englasnd disappointment

“Another one…”

Courtesy of BBC

Death, taxes and England to choke on its own victory champagne.  Football is a funny game indeed.  In the blink of an eye, success can give way to crushing disappointment. Perspectives change – the swaggerific becomes the crushed, the crushed becomes the jubilant.

As the whistle went a few minutes ago, England fans were probably left reeling in stunned silence.  Not necessarily anger – the performance served up by Spurs + 6 others was very much in-keeping with the tempo and intensity we saw of Pochettino’s men for most of 2015-2016 (forget last day…St James’ Park…).  The football was electric and vibrant, very similar to that against Italy in Brazil (2014).  The difference here was balance.  In Brazil, Sturridge lined up ahead of Rooney, Welbeck and Sterling with an ageing Gerrard expected to shield the defence while Gerrard wannabe Henderson went gambolling ahead.  Chances were created, the play was slick and England looked a modern version of itself, not a pretend version of some folks in the Iberian peninsula.  However, defensive frailties abounded and alas, a beautiful performance was sourly enjoyed as an aftertaste to defeat.

This time, Hodgson, after endless chopping and changing in warm-up friendlies went with a team that made a lot of sense.  The only doubt in selection was captain Wayne.  His selection in midfield would require not just a lot of discipline from him, but humility – Dele Alli showed in the last season that he’s most effective being allowed an advanced role.  And Rooney went about justifying not just his selection, but his place in midfield.  For the first time in an England shirt, he looked like he belonged.  The value of having  round pegs (not a nod to Rooney’s history of girth) that seemed to sort of fit in round holes almost told in England’s first opening game victory at a European Championship (in it’s history). Almost…

A brilliant Eric Dier free-kick (more on that later) gave England the lead they deserved for a quite frankly thrilling performance.  Russia deserved zero for playing so much turd (if there’s a team in a deeper identity crisis than England, introducing Russia…)  but football does not always work that way.  The equaliser, deep into injury-time, was beautifully executed; a looping header which dropped in at the far post.  My cousins, both die-hard England supporters (it’s really the only thing they know, bless them) lay back and couldn’t talk for a while.  The frustrated reaction will come later…

A few observations from the game…

Team Selection – Spot on 

No, Jamie Vardy should not have started.  Steven Gerrard recently, in a rather frank and ironically honest exposition, observed that it was high time England stopped picking the best eleven players and picked the best xi.  He would know a lot about that.  For years, England tried to shoehorn Lamps and Gerry and frankly, it was ‘ard (forgive me).  Meanwhile, Paul Scholes, tiringly touted as the best midfielder of his England generation was forced to the left where he frankly was uncomfortable.  He retired not long after Euro 2004 – England suffered nearly another decade of ‘we know Lampard and Gerrard are shit together but we have to make it work!’

Before this game, I voted on a twitter poll which basically asked whether or not excluding Vardy from the xi was the right decision.  Nearly 70% of voters thought not – nearly 40% thought it a right f**king crazy decision to exclude him.  But it was the right call and irrespective of the result, the performance proved it.  Yes, he’s a great finisher but he’s not a left winger and that is the role he would have had to play.  Once Hodgson rightly recognised that playing a 3 man midfield is the best way to get his team playing optimally, England’s best striker, Kane, was going to get the spot.  Brazil was not forgotten – playing Kane and Vardy looked (and still looks) tasty on paper but it’s gung-ho.  His squad selection also seems to have been made with a 4-3-3 in mind, which then makes his decision to take 5 strikers look a bit odd.  But it’s what it is.  Throw in Vardy’s inferior technical and tactical attributes as compared to a ‘seasoned’ winger of Sterling’s ability and it makes more sense.  Sterling, even with a few questionable decisions, was a threat throughout and deserves his spot on that showing.

King Eric (Not Cantona!)

Eric Dier started 2015-2016 as the Portuguese-speaking thatch-haired Spurs defender who was not quite sure what he was doing at Spurs.  Tonight, he shielded England’s defence at the Euros with distinction, and then added a cracking free-kick for good measure.  I have to admit, I never saw that one coming.  It was brilliantly hit (maybe not well placed but with just enough power to beat Akinfeev in goal for the Russians).  That said, the Russian goalkeeper was not entirely blameless.  The shot was fairly central, he was not completely unsighted and his attempt to save was frankly pathetic.  Someone mentioned Van Persie v Ivory Coast as a similar, turbo-charged whistler of a strike from pretty close in, but the beautifully named Tizie was certainy unsighted and BLOODY HELL, it was Van Persie at his hammerful best!  But back to Dier.  Best compliment to him is that nobody’s crying about Carrick (they never were, but the guy’s got a new contract at United – let’s not rain on his parade, eh?).  As an aside, maybe Dier should be taking England’s corner-kicks after that strike…

Kane kicks Corners and I Can Understand Cane on Corner Kicks

That’s almost as repetitive as the tiresome queries on my Twitter timeline as to why Kane was taking corner kicks.  “He’s a striker – he should be in the box”…”His corner kicks are shit anyway”…”Hodgson is Van Gaal’s geriatric twin!” (okay, I made that one up).  Harry Kane (forgetting Dier’s strike for a second) is easily England’s best striker of a ball on the pitch.  They’ve been in training long enough to have established PLUS it’s not rocket-science – just watch him over 2014 to present.  His contact is clean, he can get whip on a ball and is accurate.  Yes, he overhit a couple tonight but bloody hell, who doesn’t?

Addressing the point of him being in the box, here’s my logic for why it’s almost redundant – Joe reported, about a year ago, that there is roughly a 3% chance of scoring from a corner kick in the Premier League (in 2014-2015).  Kane, from a rough viewing of his goals for Tottenham, has scored one goal direct from a corner kick for England.  Throw in goals from flick ons from corners and the number swells to 4.  He’s hardly John Terry in the box, guys.  If you want to make the best of your 3% chance of scoring, why not having your best deliverer of the ball take the corners and have his targets (Smalling, Cahill, Dier, Dele Alli – not dwarves) be ready to maximise the 3% chance of scoring (forgive my use of 3% – it’s not directly transferable because they are different competitions and levels but I can’t imagine the variance would be anything more than minimal).  Rather than quibble about who takes corners, because BLOODY HELL (again) it’s not Phil Jones on them, worry about finishing those chances you’re creating in open play.

Onto the next one

England’s not in a terrible place at all.  It goes without saying but I’m going to say (type) it anyway – next week’s derby against Wales is a must-win.  Fail to win and you’re crapping yourselves against a Slovakia team that really isn’t that bad.  It is also important that Hodgson maintains the line-up and perhaps of greater importance, that the players go into next Thursday’s match with the same tempo, aggression and discipline.  Wales are led by Gareth Bale but eminently beatable.

I could make more observations but I think motivational fuel has just about run out.  I haven’t blogged in a while so my apologies.  If you’ve got any observations of your own, get the comments going!  Or tweet me @mundus1010.  Happy reading!